The paintings and other artworks by Mathias Joseph Alten collected and donated by George and Barbara Gordon constitute the most important part of the Alten artistic legacy at Grand Valley State University. There are, however, additional materials augmenting the paintings that provide valuable insights to Mathias Alten and his family. Residing in the Seidman House on the Allendale Campus is a treasure‑trove of supplementary documentation regarding the artist. The Special Collections and University Archives division of the Grand Valley State University Libraries houses rare books dealing with a variety of subjects and genres, political papers, literary and historical manuscripts, maps and atlases, photographs and motion pictures, works of art and sculpture, and ephemera. The beginnings of the rare book collection date to 1962 with the acquisition of 1,000 volumes including one dozen books printed in the sixteenth century. Since then, that modest collection of early printing has grown to more than 200 fifteenth‑century products printed from movable type, the second‑largest collection of such material in Michigan.

Special Collections and University Archives began to critically outgrow its space by 1992, when a substantial Abraham Lincoln and Civil‑War collection was given to the library by a Grand Rapids donor, who supplemented this original gift with other collections over the next 10 years. Because of the accelerated growth of the collections, mainly through the generosity of this donor, a two-level addition to Seidman House containing compact shelving was constructed in 2001. Collections have since grown through thoughtful acquisitions by purchase and generous donations of books, papers, and realia. More recently, through collaborations with other Grand Valley departments, faculty, and students, there has been remarkable growth in the area of digital oral‑history interview projects, many of which have generated additional donations. Joint work with the History Department’s Veterans History Project has added to the collections of veterans’ photographs and personal papers. Other collaborations, like the relationship with the university’s art gallery, have led to focused collecting in the area of art and artists. The Mathias J. Alten papers, generously donated by Alten’s granddaughter Gloria Alten Gregory in 2008, is an example of the benefits of working together.

In this collection are preserved photographs, family‑history research materials, exhibition catalogs, correspondence with galleries, a scrapbook, and a diary. The scrapbook is of particular interest in that it contains more than 100 contemporary newspaper clippings of articles about Alten’s exhibitions and his work. It also preserves rare original color covers from the Grand Rapids periodical, The Commonwealth, A Magazine for Workers, for which Alten provided artwork. Vintage photographs of Mathias J. Alten, his wife Bertha Schwind Alten, and other family members illustrate both the formal and informal sides of the family. The diary was kept by Alten’s daughter Camelia during her last semester in high school and gives day-to-day details of life in the Alten family and of life in Grand Rapids shortly before the outbreak of World War I. Family members, invested in keeping the memory of Mathias J. Alten alive, have compiled well-researched notes, interviews, speeches, and biographical materials. Recollections of Alten’s wife Bertha, his children Eleanor and Camelia, and his grandchildren Gloria Alten Gregory and Anita M. Gilleo provide narrative for the life of the artist from his earliest interest in art as a child to the influences of his travels throughout Europe and the United States, through his last days in Grand Rapids in 1938. Memories provide colorful background to the circumstances behind the creation of paintings in the words of witnesses, models, family, and friends. 

Artifacts in this collection include Alten’s gold medal from Académie Colarossi in Paris and the 14‑carat gold Scarab Club Award medal from the Annual Exhibition of Michigan Artists held in Detroit in 1920. Simpler objects include examples of his tools and paint brushes as well as material used as props in his still life paintings. All of these realia add depth to our understanding of the artist, his life and family, and his artistic endeavors.

  1. Grand Valley State University Special Collections Seidman House

    The Alten family archives are available for use by students, faculty, and researchers and are open to the general public. A portion of the collection is available online. Seidman House is located on the Allendale, Michigan, campus and its hours are Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

    Researchers looking for a detailed list of the materials at the Seidman House can begin by reading the collection description from the online catalog

    A selection of photographs, ephemera, and the Camelia Alten diary are digitized and also available in the online catalog.

  2. Grand Valley State University Special Collections Art Gallery

    Grand Valley State University Art Gallery online collection database. Information for each image provided includes title, artist, medium, date, dimensions, description, historical context, provenance, Library of Congress subject terms, and current location.

  3. Other repositories

    The Grand Rapids Art Museum Reference Library provides members and visitors access to art books and periodicals related to exhibitions and collections as well as a vertical file on Mathias J. Alten.

    The Grand Rapids Public Library houses the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections Division, one of the largest collections of historical material in Michigan. The Digital Collections provide access to contemporary news articles and exhibition reviews focused on Mathias J. Alten.

  4. Mathias J. Alten (1871-1938): A Catalogue Raisonné by James A. Straub

    A complete catalog of work by Mathias J. Alten. Information for each image provided includes title, date, medium, dimensions, descriptive notes, and provenance. Information may include exhibitions and bibliography.

  5. American Art Gallery

    An online resource of paintings of American artists from seventeenth through twentieth century, created for reference and educational purposes. The site was aggregated from a variety of online galleries. Information for each image includes title, date, medium, dimensions, location, and notes.

  6. Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art

    Microfilm of scrapbook from the Mathias J. Alten papers and access to artists’ and museums’ correspondence from and to Mathias J. Alten.

  7. The Athenaeum

    Online catalog of more than 200,000 works of art in museums, galleries and private holdings including 98 paintings by Mathias J. Alten. Information for each image provided includes title, owner/location, dates, artist’s age, dimensions, and medium.